The Urban Mystique – Stephens Looks at the City

Josh Stephens grew up in Los Angeles knowing it was a perfectly pleasant place, with enviable weather, an impressive natural environment, and Hollywood glamour. Still, he wondered whether a great city shouldn’t be something …more.

With a title inspired by Betty Friedan’s account of life in the suburbs, The Urban Mystique is equal parts lamentation and celebration. It collects Josh’s work from the California Planning & Development Report and elsewhere, covering everything from the minutiae of setbacks, the impacts of transit investments, the promise of smart growth and sustainability, and the precariousness of urban politics in the 21st century.

The Urban Mystique investigates California urbanism from an unusual blend of perspectives— reflecting the diversity and multifaceted nature of cities themselves. Stephens seeks the human side of cities, highlighting how ineffable qualities like spirit and culture relate to the visible elements of the built environment: streets, buildings, infrastructure.

The Urban Mystique treats the built environment and human environment as one in the same. Having covered urban planning for over a decade, Stephens understands the intricacies of planning.

 But Stephens’s first love was literature, and he reads cities as texts with messages and truths waiting to be articulated. It is this combination of appreciation for the technical and the human that makes The Urban Mystique a significant contribution to American urban writing.

The essays in The Urban Mystique cover a broad range of elements that are crucial to the urban experience. Some topics, like grocery stores and building setbacks, may be unexpected. Others, like racial segregation and California’s housing crisis, represent the pressing issues that nearly all urban planners and other lovers of cities grapple with.

Matters of design are just as important as matters of economics—in part because a well designed city is likely to be a more prosperous city. Stephens approaches these issues from a self-consciously appropriate demographic perspective: that of a product of Generation X, hovering between the suburban ideal of the Baby Boomers and the unbuoyed optimism of the Millennials. Stephens situates himself in the middle of urban debates over growth and housing, which often take sides along generational lines.

Ultimately, The Urban Mystique is motivated by the idea that all city-dwellers have different tastes and needs but that, at the same time, the urban ideal is a place that is dynamic enough, wealthy enough, spirited enough, and large enough to accommodate the needs and wants of everyone who chooses to participate in humanity’s greatest collective work.

For Stephens, that work focuses on places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. He takes a few detours too, to Beijing, Honolulu, Krakow, and Tucson, among others.

Stay posted for an interview with the author, coming soon to Culver City Crossroads.

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